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President Obama's deficit commission voted 11-7 in favor of the panel's recommendations according to The Hill newspaper, but the vote was a failure under the commission's bylaws. For the report to be forwarded to Congress for action, 14 of the 18 commissioners needed to vote in favor of the report. Commission co-chairman Erkine Bowles remains optimistic that major portions of it will factor into congressional debate over the FY2012 budget, however, according to the National Journal (subscription required).
The publication quotes Bowles as saying that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) "said that 85 percent of what we proposed is going to be in his budget; it doesn't get any better than that." Ryan is expected to chair the House Budget Committee next year and is a member of the commission, but did not support the report.
The commission's recommendations were released on Wednesday. They do not directly affect NASA or NOAA space programs, but could have a profound indirect effect since the commission calls for significant cuts to discretionary spending. NASA and NOAA both are encompassed in that part of the federal budget.
Yesterday's hearing before the Senate Commerce subcommittee chaired by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) left no doubt that Senators on both sides of the aisle remain deeply skeptical of the Administration's intent to implement the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.
Congress passed and the President signed the Act into law several weeks ago, but Congress has yet to appropriate funds for FY2011 to carry it out. Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren and NASA Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Beth Robinson repeatedly assured the Senators that the Administration likes the Act and intends to carry it out as long as Congress gives them the resources to do so.
The government is currently operating on a Continuing Resolution (CR) at last year's funding levels. For NASA, that is $18.7 billion, not much less than the $19 billion requested for the agency in FY2011. Senator Nelson hinted that the agency might end up flat funded for FY2011, but got agreement from Holdren and Robinson that $18.7 billion is enough to implement the Act. For their part, the Administration witnesses cautioned that if the funding is dramatically lower, they do not know how the agency will cope. Some Republicans are arguing for all agencies to be cut back to their FY2008 funding levels. For NASA, that would be $17.4 billion. Robinson pointed out that since the first quarter of FY2011 already has passed with the agency spending at the $18.7 billion level, if the agency had to absorb a cut of that magnitude, it would be a "drastic situation."
Among the questions raised at the hearing was whether NASA would indeed launch the extra shuttle flight authorized in the Act - the so-called "Launch on Need" mission or STS-135. Robinson insisted that NASA wants to fly the mission, but must wait to see how the appropriations process turns out before making a final commitment. Holdren agreed that the mission would be flown unless NASA's funding level is distinctly lower than the request.
Senators pressed Robinson to explain the status of implementing the programs in the Act. The situation is complicated because the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act prohibits NASA from cancelling the Constellation program or initiating a replacement program until Congress passes another appropriations act allowing them to do so. Robinson replied that NASA therefore is getting rulings from its General Counsel's office and advice from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on how to proceed on specific elements of the program. General Counsel rulings have been issued to allow three programs to proceed (commercial crew, space technology, and setting up an organization to manage research on the International Space Station), but not yet for moving forward immediately with a new NASA-developed heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) and a NASA-developed crew exploration vehicle. Senators Nelson and Vitter (R-LA) wondered why the rulings are for programs the President had requested, not for the HLLV and crew vehicle programs that were directed by Congress. She explained that the decisions were driven by which programs needed clarification first.
Relieving NASA of the restrictions in the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act would make NASA's implementation of the authorization act easier. Senator Vitter asked Holdren and Robinson whether the Administration has conveyed to congressional appropriators that it wants the restrictions lifted as a priority matter and said he would view that as a test of the President's commitment to implement the authorization act.
Holdren and Robinson's repeated assurances throughout the hearing that the Administration would indeed implement the authorization act did not seem to quell the Senators' discomfort. Nelson said that when the House was considering the authorization act some people in the Administration - but not at the highest levels, he said - were working against it. He was not specific about who they were.
The recently released independent review of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program by a team headed by John Casani also was discussed. Senator Nelson asked Holdren, Robinson, and GAO's Cristina Chaplain, another witness, about their reactions to the report, which revealed that JWST will cost $6.5 billion instead of $5 billion and slip another year to 2015. Each expressed deep dismay about the discovery of these problems, especially so late in the program. Holdren said he was "very disappointed," while Robinson said that "we were heartened" to see that the program is meeting its technical milestones, but that it was "somewhat shocking" that the program had not followed normal NASA budgeting and planning procedures. Chaplain added that GAO was "very disappointed" and she would have to "rebaseline my thinking" about the improvements GAO thought NASA had been making in program management.
Robinson told the subcommittee that the Casani report was not the final word on JWST. She said that review group looked at the quickest route to complete the telescope, but it was not clear the agency could find the required funds to do that in the near term. A "bottoms up analysis" is underway to get a more detailed cost estimate, she said, and NASA would provide more details in the FY2012 budget request.
At a press conference today, NASA astrobiology research fellow Felisa Wolfe-Simon announced the discovery of an organism unlike any other on Earth: "a microbe that can substitute arsenic for phosphorus." The finding questions the assumption of life's basic components and opens the door for new hypotheses of what life may look like not only on Earth, but on other planets.
Wolfe-Simon, who led the research team, described herself as "always interested in exceptions to the rule," an outlook that prompted her to find out if there was a living organism that could substitute one of the building blocks of life - phosphorous - with a toxic, yet chemically similar element, arsenic. This question led the team to the harsh conditions of Mono Lake in Northern California, which, despite having high levels of arsenic and three times the salt of seawater, is teeming with life. There they found a microbe, dubbed GFAJ-1. The team took samples of mud at the lake, and, back in the laboratory, created almost identical conditions - except for the elimination of phosphorous and the introduction of high doses of arsenic. The result was extraordinary: "not only did [the microbe] cope," said Wolfe-Simon, "but it grew and it thrived; and that was amazing." When the researchers measured the arsenic concentration in the organism, they found it was behaving like phosphorous would within the cell - as the backbone of the DNA.
Putting the role of phosphorous in context, Arizona State University Professor James Elser, explained that life, as is traditionally conceived, relies on phosphorous. Its scarcity on Earth and the concern that it may be running out has prompted many to look for solutions. The research discussed today, of what he described as a "clever organism" capable of evolving to do without the crucial element, may yield new ideas. Elser suggested that practical applications may be explored, like waste water treatment, and bio-energy that does not require phosphorous-based fertilizer. But first in line is the reconsideration of the basic assumption, which Elser has used repeatedly in his teaching, that life needs phosphorous to survive. "I have to thank you and blame you [Felisa] for making our lives more difficult," he joked.
While still considering the research significant, Steven Benner, Distinguished Fellow at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, was wary of jumping to conclusions. Benner described himself as the chemist brought in to dampen the excitement as he explained why chemists would see this as an "exceptional result" requiring "exceptional evidence." While questions remain to prove this "exceptional claim," he said that the organism would be there for further testing. Benner pointed to a 2007 National Academy of Science's report, The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems -- the "weird life" report -- to suggest that the conditions that make arsenic too unstable on Earth may be useful in radically different environments, like the cold environment of Titan.
In this respect, the discovery will impact NASA's search for life, particularly with respect to defining "habitability" outside of Earth, explained Pamela Conrad, astrobiologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "We still don't know what might make a habitable environment," she explained. This research suggests that where arsenic may have been thought of as life-prohibiting and toxic, it may be found to be, if not essential for habitability, at least tolerable for some organisms. Conrad said the impact the discovery would have on NASA programs would be to challenge scientists to "think more broadly about environments one might characterize as habitable."
According to Wolfe-Simon, the implications are broad. She said that the discovery was "not about arsenic or Mono Lake but thinking about life in a planetary context" and its potential for questioning what was previously thought was possible for life. This microbe shows a "different way to do business" and "it has solved the challenge of being a life in a very different way than we knew of." The questions arising out of this discovery will open the door for new areas of research and "it will take an army of scientists" to explore, she said.
According to a questioner, the news that NASA would make a significant announcement related to the search for life was met with some disappointment from members of the public when the researchers did not pull an "ET out of a hat." Mary Voytek, Director of the Astrobiology Program at NASA Headquarters, said that she was sorry about this disappointment but explained that, "from our perspective, this is a phenomenal finding." She added that it "will fundamentally change how we define life [and] what we look for in life."
According to the NASA press release, the research team was made up of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, Arizona State University in Tempe, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Duquesne University, and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource. The findings will be published in today's edition of Science Express (subscription required).
The House passed a new short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) today to keep the government operating through December 18. The current CR expires on Friday. The legislation (H. J. Res. 101) is short, simply changing the expiration date of the current CR. Its future in the Senate is unclear, however.
All 42 Republican Senators have vowed to filibuster any legislation until the government is funded and the Bush-era tax cuts are extended for everyone. The latter is a major source of contention with the President, who wants to extend the tax cuts for the middle class, but not the wealthy.
Another wrinkle may be Senator David Vitter's (R-LA) comment today at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing that he wants language in the next CR relieving NASA of a prohibition in the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act against terminating the Constellation program or initiating a replacement. The current language is complicating NASA's ability to implement the 2010 NASA Authorization Act signed into law in October.
Senator Vitter wanted to know if the Administrationn has conveyed to congressional appropriators that getting the prohibition lifted is a high priority for the President. He added that he would view it as a test of the President's commitment to implementing the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. Insisting on adding such language could complicate passage of the new CR, however.
The hearing revealed that key Senators on both sides of the aisle remain skeptical about the Obama Administration's commitment to following the Act. Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren and NASA Chief Financial Officer Beth Robinson repeatedly assured the Senators that they are very happy with the law and intend to follow it as long as Congress provides them with a FY2011 budget that is close to the President's request of $19 billion. If Congress were to roll the agency back to its FY2008 funding level of $17.4 billion, however, it is not clear how NASA would cope. Some Republicans are calling for all federal agencies to be cut back to their FY2008 levels in order to reduce the deficit.
President Obama's deficit commission released its final report today. Entitled "The Moment of Truth," one change from the draft released several weeks ago is that it does not call for cancelling funding for NASA's commercial crew program. In fact, NASA is not specifically mentioned at all, though the commission does recommend significant cuts to discretionary spending of which NASA is a part.
Co-chaired by former Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, the 18-member bipartisan commission is tasked with making recommendations to bring the budget into "primary balance" by 2015 and to "meaningfully improve the long-run fiscal outlook." For discretionary spending, it offers "over $50 billion in immediate cuts to lead by example," and providea "$200 billion in illustrative 2015 savings."
"Every aspect of the discretionary budget must be scrutinized, no agency can be off limits, and no program that spends too much or achieves too little can be spared," it says. The commission also recommends creation of a "Cut-and-Invest" committee that each year would identify 2 percent of the discretionary budget that should be cut and where half of those savings should be reinvested. Expanding research and development in "energy and other critical areas" is cited as an example of potential investments.
The commission did not vote on the report today. Under its bylaws, at least 14 of the commissioners must vote in favor of the report for it to be forwarded to Congress for consideration. A vote is currently scheduled for Friday.
A reciprocal visit from Chinese space officials to NASA is not yet being planned according to an interview Aviation Week & Space Technology's Frank Mooring conducted with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden on November 23. Bolden visited China last month.
Morring quotes Bolden as saying: "There is not a delegation coming next month as far as I know.... A reciprocal visit is something we continue to work with the interagency organizations ... trying to figure out the timing on that.... I wouldn't even say there is a reciprocal visit planned. I think everyone would like to see one, but everybody's still in conversations."
Ideas put forward for cooperation by Russian space agency head Anatoly Perminov in November similarly are "going nowhere fast," according to the magazine.
Regarding the $1.5 billion cost growth on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) recently revealed by an independent panel, Bolden is quoted by Aviation Week as saying that the panel's study was "only 'back of the envelope'" and the issue is now being studied more thoroughly by a new management team. The goal is to enable the agency to "present a creditable story to the science community as well as all of our stakeholders" next year. As reported earlier by SpacePolicyOnline.com, the NAC astrophysics subcommittee will get an update on JWST on December 22 and a town hall meeting is scheduled for January 10, 2011 at the AAS annual meeting in Seattle.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the focus of a December 22 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council's astrophysics subcommittee. An independent review recently concluded that JWST will cost an additional $1.4 billion, raising its pricetag to $6.5 billion and slipping its launch date another year, to 2015.
The impact of that cost increase on other astrophysics programs is a matter of considerable concern to the space astrophysics community. In today's constrained federal budget environment, it is not likely that the agency will be given additional funds to make up the difference, meaning that other astrophysics programs probably will be delayed or not started.
The National Research Council (NRC) recently laid out plans for the next 10 years of ground- and space-based astrophysics research in the New Worlds New Horizons Decadal Survey. Whether those recommendations are affordable under these circumstances and, if not, what the road ahead portends will be a major topic of discussion not only at this subcommittee meeting, but at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Seattle. A special "town hall" meeting on JWST is scheduled for the evening of January 10.
UPDATE: Two events are added for December 2.
The following events may be of interest in the coming week. For more details, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. Dates and times for congressional hearings are subject to change; check with the relevant committee for up to date information.
Wednesday, December 1
Thursday, December 2
Friday, December 3
The space ministers of the European Union (EU) and European Space Agency (ESA) met on November 25 in Brussels, Belgium for the seventh time since the two organizations signed a framework agreement in 2004. The two groups have overlapping, but not identical, memberships. The EU is a political body, while ESA is technical. The two have worked together on the European Galileo navigation satellite system and the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program for several years.
The Space Council meeting took place as part of a meeting of the Council of the European Union on "Competitiveness (Internal Market, Industry, Research and Space)." A press release from the EU said that the Council "endorsed a resolution on the orientations to be taken so that Europe can continue to develop world-class space infrastructures and applications, and to rely on efficient space systems to serve its citizens." The Galileo and GMES programs were given special emphasis.
Among its many points, the resolution itself "ACKNOWLEDGES the increasing dependence of the European economy and policies ... on space assets and the critical nature of space infrastructures for autonomous European decision making...." It also "NOTES the EU's proposal for a Code of Conduct in Outer Space" and "RECOGNISES the need for a future Space Situational Awareness (SSA) capability as an activity at European level..."
Article 189 of the Lisbon Treaty, which went into force in December 2009, gives the EU an explicit role not only in European space applications like Galileo and GMES, but also in space exploration. The resolution issued yesterday "CONSIDERS" that Europe's robotic and human space exploration program should be undertaken "within a worldwide programme" developed by building upon existing international partnerships. The International Space Station (ISS) is specifically cited as an example. The resolution "TAKES NOTE" of the decision by some ISS partners to extend operations of the ISS until at least 2020 and stresses the need to effectively utilize the facility.
Regarding space exploration, the resolution "STRESSES the strong common interest of Member States in Mars exploration" and "CALLS UPON the European Commission and ESA [Director General], jointly, to develop and propose a European exploration strategy..."
ESA issued its own press release, quoting Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain as saying that the Lisbon Treaty with its Article 189 is "good news for space, good news for Europe and good news for ESA. It allows us not to do the same thing differently, but to do more, together."
UPDATE: NASA TV showed the egress of the crew live and a version of the video is available on the NASA TV YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/NASATelevision
Three members of the International Space Station crew landed safely in Kazakhstan as scheduled.
Events of Interest
- Satellite 2014, March 10-13, 2014, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC
- ISU-DC Space Café Featuring Avascent's Royce Dalby, March 11, 2014, The Science Club, Washington, DC, 7:00 pm ET
- NAC Planetary Sci Sbcmte, March 12, 2014, NASA HQ, Washington, DC, 8:30 am - 4:30 pm ET
- SASC Hrg on Military Space Programs, March 12, 2014, 222 Russell Senate Office Building, 2:30 pm ET
- House Approps Defense Sbcmte Hrg on FY2015 DOD Budget Req, March 13, 2014, 2359 Rayburn House Office Building, 10:00 am ET
- HASC Hrg on FY2015 Budget Request for the Air Force, March 14, 2014, 2118 Rayburn House Office Building, 9:00 am ET
Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »
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